Cultural Psychology

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Cicero on the Bonds of our Common Human Nature

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OF ALL the things which are a subject of philosophical debate there is nothing more worthwhile than clearly to understand that we are born for justice and that justice is established not by opinion but by nature. That will be clear if you examine the common bonds among human beings.

[29] There is no similarity, no likeness of one thing to another, so great as the likeness we all share. If distorted habits and false opinions did not twist weak minds and bend them in any direction, no one would be so like himself as all people would be like all others. Thus, whatever definition of a human being one adopts is equally valid for all humans.

[30] That, in turn, is a sufficient proof that there is no dissimilarity within the species; if there were, then no one definition would apply to all. In particular, reason, the one thing by which we stand above the beasts, through which we are capable of drawing inferences, making arguments, refuting others, conducting discussions and demonstrations — reason is shared by all, and though it differs in the particulars of knowledge, it is the same in the capacity to learn.

All the same things are grasped by the senses; and the things that are impressed upon the mind, the rudiments of understanding which I mentioned before, are impressed similarly on all humans, and language, the interpreter of the mind, may differ in words but is identical in ideas.

There is no person of any nation who cannot reach virtue with the aid of a guide.

[31] The similarity of the human race is as remarkable in perversities as it is in proper behavior. All people are ensnared by pleasure; and even if it is an enticement to bad conduct it still has some similarity to natural goodness: it gives delight through its fickle sweetness. Thus through a mental error it is adopted as something salutary; by a similar sort of ignorance death is avoided as a dissolution of nature, life is sought because it keeps us in the state in which we were born, and pain is considered one of the greatest evils both because of its own harshness and because the destruction of our nature seems to follow from it.

[32] . . . Trouble, happiness, desires, and fears pass equally through the minds of all . . . What nation is there that does not cherish affability, generosity, a grateful mind and one that remembers good deeds?

What nation does not scorn and hate people who are proud, or evildoers, or cruel, or ungrateful? From all these things it may be understood that the whole human race is bound together; and the final result is that the understanding of the right way of life makes all people better. . . .

[33] It follows, then, that we have been made by nature to receive the knowledge of justice one from another and share it among all people. And I want it to be understood in this whole discussion that the justice of which I speak is natural, but that such is the corruption of bad habits that it extinguishes what I may call the sparks given by nature, and that contrary vices arise and become established. But if human judgment corresponded to what is true by nature and men thought nothing human alien to them (to use the poet’s phrase), then justice would be cultivated equally by all. Those who have been given reason by nature have also been given right reason [recta ratio], and therefore law too, which is right reason in commands and prohibitions; and if they have been given law, then they have been given justice too. All people have reason, and therefore justice has been given to all; so that Socrates rightly used to curse the person who was first to separate utility from justice, and to complain that that was the source of all ills. . . . (Translation: Zetzel, 1999, pp. 115−117).

Additional fragment found in Lactantius, Divine Institutes 5.8.10 (Translation: Keyes, 1928, p. 519):

As one and the same Nature holds together and supports the universe, all of whose parts are in harmony with one another, so men are united by Nature; but by reason of their depravity they quarrel, not realizing that they are of one blood and subject to one and the same protecting power. If this fact were understood, surely man would live the life of the gods!

Source: Cicero, Laws (De legibus) 1.28−33.

Latin text here.


Keyes, Clinton W. (Tr.). Cicero. On the Republic. On the Laws. (Loeb Classical Library 213). Harvard University Press, 1928, p. 519.

Zetzel, James E. G. Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 115−117; cf. second edition, 2017.



Written by John Uebersax

August 9, 2017 at 7:04 pm

The Supreme Court, Gay Marriage, and Prisoners of Plato’s Cave Arguing About Shadows

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shadows on wall of platos cave

Despite my best efforts to ignore the subject, I’ve been forcibly informed that on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 the US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the pending gay marriage case.  The case interests me no more than the arguments amongst prisoners in Plato’s cave about the shapes of shadows flitting on the wall (Republic 7.514ff).

One group with a childish concept of ‘rights’ will face another with an equally erroneous concept of ‘morality.’ No arguments based on logic or explicit first principles will be raised.  The names associated with the foundations of moral philosophy, names like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and Cicero, will not be mentioned.  One faction of a dumbed-down, culturally illiterate society will square off against the other.  They should name the case Folly vs. Folly.

Her blindfold will spare us seeing Lady Justice roll her eyes in exasperation.

I suspect the Supreme Court will ultimately endorse gay marriage, since, Reason long since having fled the halls of the Court, the matter will be decided politically.  If so, some good may come from the Supreme Court placing itself so far out on a limb that all Americans will start to see that it is better for us have these issues decided by logic and good-will, not animosity, power-politics, and the machinations of demagogues.

But since Fate has thrust the matter before me, I will weigh in on it.

Proponents of gay marriage assert that marriage is a right.  Now is this true?  Is it obviously true?  Should we not begin by defining what a right is, and then supply a reasoned argument why marriage is a right?

And if marriage is a right, is it a civil (legal) right or a natural right?  A natural right is an inalienable right, one that exists, say, in a state of primitive nature before governments are instituted.  Consider this example.  If two strangers (let’s say a man and woman, just to keep the example simple) accidentally wash up on a deserted island and then decided to start making babies, they would not, and could not, be married.  Marriage would have no meaning.  Marriage is a category that produces a relationship of a pair of people to the rest of society. If there is no society, it is meaningless to speak of marriage.

Now someone might reply.  “No, you are wrong.  It is God who marries two people.”  Well, fair enough — we can easily clarify that.  Marriage exists both as a religious and a secular institution in today’s society.  We are not considering here the issue of religious marriage.  That is for churches to consider, not the Supreme Court.  Our focus of attention here is exclusively secular marriage, of the kind that would require two people to get a marriage license, register at City Hall, check “married” on a census survey, etc.

Now since, as our example suggests, a secularly defined marriage does not exist without a society, it would appear to be more a civil right than a natural right.  Again:  having sex is a natural right; but being designated by society as “married” is not a natural right.

This suggests that marriage, if a right at all, is a civil right.  Civil rights are decided by legislation.  There is nothing inherent in the nature of civil rights that unconditionally demands that all people, in every case, are entitled to exactly equal treatment.  Cases in point:  children are not allowed to drink alcohol; felons are not allowed to vote (in some states).  But let’s stop with this.  There is plenty of room to argue either way here — that gay couples should or should not, based on issues of justice and society’s best interests, enjoy a civil right to be married.  This should be discussed, but it should be done in a constructive and unprejudiced manner.

However it must also be asked whether marriage is a right at all.  There are other paradigms for looking at marriage which seem at least as plausible.

We can, for example, see marriage as a privilege.  Let’s again consider the state of a primitive, aboriginal society, before the development of a formal government.  In a clan or small tribe, we can likely find examples of the principle that not everybody is sanctioned by the community to be married.  Consider the nature of marriage: it is a ceremony attended by many others, perhaps the whole village.  It is a cause for community celebration. There are dowries to be paid. Moreover, the married couple typically must show some evidence of being able to contribute to the life and welfare of the community — as judged by the standards and values of that community.  In the traditional wedding ceremony, we still have the part that says, “if anyone has any just reason why this couple should not be united, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”  Presumably this part is in there for a reason. Doubtless there have been many times when this option has been exercised.  Any number of objections might be raised.  “The man is a lout, an alcoholic!”  “The woman is unfaithful!”  “They are both lazy good-for-nothings, who never help with the community labor, and will do nothing but produce more mouths to feed.”  The point is that the community has some, and perhaps a great deal to say about who should be allowed to be married. If marriage is a privilege, how else is a community to decide this except by legislation, or at the ballot box.  That is what the citizens of California did:  they went to the ballot box, and the majority voted against gay marriage.

Do I agree with that?  I’ll say this much:  that an issue like this is of sufficient gravity that it should not be decided merely by a simple majority vote.  Here is a case where a super-majority — say a 2/3 or 75% majority might demonstrate sufficient consensus to decide an issue.

Or what if, along similar lines, we see marriage as an award, an honor granted to certain couples based on merit? If we go back to the origins of marriage in primitive society, that is not an entirely implausible model, and not one that should be dismissed without fair consideration.  If a young couple has made a sufficiently good impression on their family and village, people will help them out with a place to live, gifts, etc., as though to say, “we’d like to have more people like you; get working on it!”

In that case it is absurd to claim that everyone is entitled to “equal treatment under the law.”  If marriage is an award, then one can no more insist that everyone is equally entitled to marriage than that everyone equally deserves a ticker-tape parade just because an astronaut gets one, or a reception with the president because the Super Bowl winners get one.   But, you might ask, who decides who gets the ‘award’ of marriage and who doesn’t.  That is society’s prerogative, just as in the case of other awards.

No doubt in the Supreme Court case someone will raise the issue of uniform enforcement:  if a gay couple is married in Massachusetts, and it isn’t honored in California, that will make the administrative tasks of the federal government impossible.  That is a specious argument.  By this reasoning we should simply eliminate the individual states altogether as administratively inconvenient, and adopt a single, uniform national code of law.  Further, by such reasoning any state could pass a strange law concerning marriage (e.g., permitting marriage for children under the age of 12) and the other states would have to honor it.

There is one potentially interesting topic likely to emerge in the case.  If gay marriage is considered a right based on “equal treatment under the law,” how can society then deny a right to polygamous marriage?  What will be interesting is to see the fancy footwork as the pro-gay marriage attorneys try to side-step that question.

Meanwhile the United States is in a state of perpetual war, a matter which concerns all our welfare and basic issues of justice 100 times more than the issue of gay marriage.

No comments please.  This subject hold no interests for me.  I write only to bemoan the fact that this topic is being mishandled by all parties.

Pseudodoxia – A New Term for an Old Psychological Disorder

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Most educated people know at least a few facts about the life of Socrates, including that:

(1) he claimed to have wisdom only insofar as he admitted his ignorance;

(2) he constantly battled the word-twisting Sophists of his day; and

(3) he was ultimately tried and executed by the ignorant mass opinion of the Athenians.

Knowing just this much one could easily characterize Socrates’ mission as a crusade against false opinion.

In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, the term ‘false opinion’ occurs often and prominently. Interestingly, the actual Greek term used, pseude doxazein is a verb, not a noun. We might translate it in modern English as something like ‘false opinionizing’, ‘false opining’, or ‘the mental process of forming false opinions’. This is significant, for by understanding false opinion as a cognitive process, we can potentially understand and remedy it..

False opinion afflicts us everywhere, and it is no small wonder that Socrates was so committed to opposing it.  Some examples at the individual and collective level include:

  • I know that I’m right.
  • This other person injured me, so I must retaliate.
  • All Republicans are greedy (or all Democrats are soft-headed ‘bleeding hearts’).
  • The only way to counter terrorism is with multiple wars.

We could easily list a hundred other examples.  Not a day occurs that false opinion doesn’t harm us in dozens of ways.  Every human problem, if not caused by false opinion in the first place, is at least made worse by it.

Because of the importance of false opinion, I propose that we supply a better name for the phenomenon.  A plausible candidate is pseudodoxia (pseudo = false; doxia = opinionizing). This has the same form we use for other abnormal cognitive processes, such as dementia, melancholia, mania, and paranoia. A  term like this helps to underscore the nature of false opinion as a real and distinct cognitive abnormality or disorder.

What, then, do we know or what can we plausibly conjecture about pseudodoxia? Plato and Socrates give us clues, including these:

First, it involves a failure to distinguish between a proven fact and mere opinion. Valid reasoning involves (1) a proven or highly plausible first principle (e.g., all triangles have three sides), and (2) logical inferences derived from valid first principles.

Pseudodoxia, in contrast, involves (1) uncritical acceptance of an unproven and completely conjectural first principle (e.g., ‘I really want to smoke this cigarette’) and (2) logical inferences deduced from a such false or merely conjectural first principles.

Second, pseudodoxia involves an intrusion of wants, desires, and needs into the sphere of reason.  That is, wants and fears co-opt reasoning and judgment. In English, we informally call this sort of thing ‘wishful thinking.’  With false opinion or pseudodoxia, such wishful thinking is not distinguished from true, rational logic; one accepts the conclusions of the former as if it were the latter.

Plato and Socrates also outline for us what must happen to overcome this powerful enemy:

Our first recourse is to avoid the dangers of false opinion is to know it exists.  Once a person is alerted to the workings of false opinion, it becomes apparent how much harm it causes, and one develops the motivation to oppose it.

Second, people must understand that there is an alternative to false opinion.  As noted, false opinion develops in connection with faulty, self-serving first principles.  The antidote is to recognize the role of what philosophers call noesisNoesis is a special mental faculty, like seeing, which apprehends truths directly (bypassing verbal or discursive thought).  Not everything is knowable by noesis — rather, it concerns such things as direct insights into one’s own nature, (‘know thyself’) and moral truths.  For example, sometimes in life we have little epiphany experiences, where, either by reflection, or reading, or by noticing something in another person, we are made aware of the real meaning of something like love, friendship, integrity, and so on.  It is these sorts of things that should form the foundations of our logical inferences, not idle opinion that merely enters our mind as a hostile prejudice or wish-fulfilling daydream.

Thus, to take a concrete example, a soldier at war tends to accept uncritically the assumption that “my opponents are evil, demonic beings.”  Yet something may happen that causes him to see the enemy in a different light.  He may see them wounded, say, or interacting with families.  Then he has a valid, noetic insight:  “Wait, these people are no different from me.”  The conclusions he derives from the latter would constitute knowledge.

Third, another alternative, one based on ‘Socratic ignorance’ is to learn to be content simply to say, ‘I don’t know.’  This is also the strategy of Pyrhhonic skepticism.

I will write more on this, either with further posts or adding to this one, but this is enough to get started.

Written by John Uebersax

April 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm